MARCO ISLAND — Each summer, Southwest Florida is the home to a wide variety of giant sharks. Bulls, lemons, hammerheads and tigers of gigantic proportions — routinely reaching lengths of 10 feet or more — cruise the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico in search of a meal and a mate.
Thanks to a steady supply of food and a natural habitat that is ideal for spawning and the early development of their young, the local waters provide a great opportunity for anglers who appreciate a head-to-head match with nature’s greatest apex predator.
“I don’t know if it is the best in the world but it’s definitely very good,” said Capt. John Brossard of Shark Chaser Charters in Naples. “It’s pretty much a nursery ground for them with all the estuaries like the Everglades, Lemon Bay and Estero Bay so there are always a lot of sharks out there.”
“It’s exciting to catch something that could possibly eat you,” Capt. Chris DeWitt of Big Shark Fishing said of the allure of shark fishing. “We have a large number of sharks up and down the coast and when you can catch one of the big ones it can be a lot of fun when they pull so hard. I like to use light or medium tackle so the fight can take half-hour, hour or more. When you see the look on someone’s face right after they just caught the biggest fish of their lives, that is a dream come true.”
Some of the biggest sharks in the world have been caught locally. In May 2010, Bucky Dennis caught a 1,280-pound great hammerhead in Boca Grande Pass. In 1982, Warren Grille caught a 764-pound dusky off Longboat Key in Sarasota. Both are recognized as world records by the International Game Fish Association.
“Estuaries are highly productive nursery areas that provide shelter and ample food resources that allow sharks to grow quickly to sizes where they don’t become prey for larger sharks,” Rookery Bay Reserve researcher Patrick O’Donnell said.
One of the biggest reasons for the number of massive sharks that roam these waters this time of year is the steady amount of available food. The annual northern migration of tarpon that begins in the Keys in early spring to the swarms of cownose rays — the preferred meal of hammerheads — that runs through the end of summer, as well as the large schools of Spanish mackerel in between, provide ample opportunity for the large sharks to engorge themselves so that they can begin their spawning season.
“There are some very big ones over here and I think has a lot to do with the food chain around here,” Brossard said.
Another reason for the thriving shark population in these waters can be attributed in part to conservation efforts to maintain that population. Currently, state regulations limit the harvest of sharks over 54 inches in length to one per angler or two total per boat. This year, tiger sharks and hammerheads were added to a protected list that already included lemon, longfin makos and white sharks. Most shark anglers agree with the current restrictions.
“I’m pretty much a catch-and-release man now,” Brossard said. “I think (the new laws) are great personally and I don’t have a problem with them at all. I want there to be sharks out there for when my kid grows up.”
“I think they are really looking out for the sharks and that is a good thing for me,” DeWitt said. “I’m entirely catch-and-release and aside from fatigue, every shark we catch is released unharmed.”
All these factors make Southwest Florida an ideal place for anglers who want to wrestle with one of these majestic creatures. Although the act of fighting a massive shark is an adrenaline-pumping experience, chasing sharks, however, can be a very specialized task. Not only is this area known for exceptionally large specimens, but the variety of available species can also provide a unique thrill.
“One day I’ll go and catch two or three types of sharks and then I’ll go two or three days later and catch three or four totally different types of sharks from the same site,” said Brossard, who has had an infatuation with sharks since moving to Florida when he was 10. “It just depends on what is cruising by at the time. It’s great because that is what we like about it. You never know what you’ll catch out there.”
“We have an abundance of different types of sharks here so every day is a new adventure,” added DeWitt, who has been a licensed captain in the area for the last 13 years.
“A lot of people watch the fishing shows on TV and they think they can just go out there and catch a bunch of sharks but sometimes that’s not the case,” Brossard said.
O’Donnell urged anglers to take caution when handling fish in order to ensure the shark’s safety.
“Keep the shark in the water, remove hook if possible or cut line as close to mouth as possible and release the shark as soon as possible,” he urged. “An overly stressed shark can be towed along the side of the boat to force water over its gills before releasing. Any tagged sharks should be reported to the contact on the tag to provide valuable information about sharks.”
Ever since Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws was released in 1975, America has had a fascination with sharks, a fascination that continues to this day as evident by the viral video of a 5-foot bull shark stealing a fish from an unsuspecting fisherman just feet from a dock in South Carolina. Since being posted to YouTube on July 10, the video has received more than 7 million views.
“People think of them as man-eaters,” Brossard said. “I think they are afraid of them, just like I used to be, just because they are so big and you never really know what they are going to do out there.”
Despite the large numbers of sharks that patrol our coast, sharks pose little threat to humans who choose to share their habitat. According to the Florida Museum of History, which tracks shark incidents for the International Shark Files, there have only been 14 documented unprovoked attacks in Southwest Florida — seven in Collier and seven in Lee County — since 1882. There has never been a documented fatality, and the last bite occurred in 2007.